When they reached the house of the O-minami shrine, Tenshio sensed the presence of an old friend. He lifted his head with relief. His steps quickened; he went lithely up the stone steps to the garden.
Sitting in the grass was a massive pale beast. Its shoulders and chest were heavy and muscular and covered with a tightly curling white mane. Two sturdy front paws ended in thick, upward arching claws.
The hindquarters of the beast were flopped down into the grass. Its thick, short hind legs ended in claws at the feet and were barbed at the prominent hocks. Its long tail moved lazily up and down in the grass, rippling the silken bob of hair at its tip.
The wide, heavy jaws were open as it panted, revealing rows of sharpened white teeth. Two long incisors curled over its pale lips. Above the mouth its tip tilted, pale eyes watched from under bushy eyebrows. Despite its size, all of the beast’s lines were as elegant and simple as calligraphy.
Yuudai sat nearby on the veranda, cross-legged on a cushion. He was leaning forward, one hand on his knee, the other waving a fan lazily through the air in front of his face. Beside him sat Lady Atsuko, her legs curled demurely under her. In her lap she held a wide mouthed glass jar. Their infant was bound up against her mother’s back in a swath of indigo and blue cotton, which tied over Atsuko’s chest.
In the grass beside the beast, Takeshi and Aiko were running and leaping after chi that hovered in the dusky air. Their happy shouts echoed strangely off the rock walls that encircled the elegant, white house. The stone lanterns that were scattered through out the garden’s landscaping were all lit, casting pools of soft light here and there.
When the beast saw Tenshio walking onto the grass, carrying a soundly sleeping Gilly, its wide jaws curved up further.
“Tenshio!” it said. Its voice was so deep that it seemed the air trembled. Its tail flicked sharply down onto the grass as it spoke.
The children turned, breathless, from their pursuit of the lights and bowed to Tenshio. Their faces still glowed with excitement.
“Look who’s come, Master Tenshio!” exclaimed Takeshi, unable to keep silent. “Lord Fushi!”
“Lord Fushi!” echoed Aiko, clapping her hands.
“So he has,” agreed Tenshio, smiling broadly. “And I am grateful for it.”
Gilly stirred from the deep sleep that Tenshio’s warmth so often induced in her. The sound of Lord Fushi’s voice has reverberated even in her dreams. She lifted her heavy head from Tenshio’s shoulder and rubbed her eyes. The cheek that had rested against his shoulder was creased from the folded silk she had lain against.
“So this is Gilly,” said the beast, tipping his head. “We must be friends, for I am coming with you on your journey.”
Gilly took in the beast with the glowing eyes slowly, her dream still fading away. Tenshio set her down on her feet, but did not stand, since she continued to cling to the fingers of his left hand.
“Will you come to me, child, as you did not to Lord T‘ien-lung?” said the beast. “It would be a great pleasure to put him in his place for once: he’s far too cocky for his own good. Besides, you and I must be friends, for we are going on a long journey together.”
Lord Fushi crouched down, sliding his front paws out until his belly was settled against the deep grass. His heavy head with the coiled mane and curved fangs were now about at Gilly’s height.
“We are?” asked Gilly, still sheltered by Tenshio’s arm, pressed close up against his knee. Tenshio’s other hand casually held Gilly's original set of clothing, still damp from their washing at Osamu’s house. He waited, curious as to what the child would do without any encouragement from him.
“Indeed. We will cross the Kagamihara together.”
“Oh, that’s good,” said the child artlessly. “Master Tenshio needs help.”
Tenshio dropped his head into the hand that held the clothing and quietly groaned. Everyone else, after a stunned moment, roared with laughter. The ground shook from it. Takeshi was bent double. Atsuko leaned against her husband, her hands limp in her lap as she laughed. The long, white line of her throat was very beautiful in the dim light.
“When I mentioned that you were good for the ego, child,” Tenshio murmured to Gilly, “my intention was not for you to redouble your efforts in deflating it.”